NUI GALWAY LEADS THE WAY IN COLLABORATIVE VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS

Monday, 25 November 2002

Release date: 25 November, 2002

NUI GALWAY LEADS THE WAY IN COLLABORATIVE VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS

A new research project about to get underway in NUI Galway is aiming to improve the effectiveness of distance education and teleworking. Project leader Dr. Sam Redfern of the Department of Information Technology at NUI Galway, will explore new ways to alleviate the problems often associated with distance learning and remote working.

"Feelings of isolation, lack of team unity, lack of consideration of different learning styles and a lack of effective work task co-ordination are frequently cited as the main inhibitors to working and learning remotely," said Dr. Redfern.

Studies show that informal communication accounts for more than twice the amount of work-related discussion in the workplace. This social interaction with colleagues allows trust to be established and is the foundation on which effective work practices are built. This social element is missing from the remote environment and often causes the distant worker and learner to feel isolated and socially deprived of contact with other colleagues.

Dr Redfern hopes to address these problems through the use of a Collaborative Virtual Environment (CVE). The CVE is an online community or computer-enabled virtual place where distant workers and learners can meet and interact with each other and their peers through the use of technology. CVEs have been in existence since the early 1990s and have up to now mostly been used for military and industrial team training, collaborative design and engineering and multi-player games.

"Because CVEs are relatively new, the majority of scholarly work to date has focused on their design and implementation. It is only within the past two or three years that any CVE researchers have begun to look beyond these purely technological issues," said Dr. Redfern. Most of the advancements in IT to date have centred on developments in hardware and software. However, this is about to change as more analysts predict that the most exciting research in IT over the next few years will concentrate on designing spaces for human communication and interaction. This will enhance our ability to understand, analyse and create interaction spaces.

The research being carried out by Dr. Redfern and his team will greatly aid this process and places NUI Galway at the forefront of this development work in Ireland. Few studies addressing computer-supported co-operative work and human factors have been published to date. "In addition to investigating a number of specific issues, this project will develop a software platform for more varied and long term research and development into the support of dispersed working using CVEs. The intention is for this to become an area of research excellence based in NUI Galway," said Dr. Redfern.

The CVE takes distance learning or remote working a step further by 'humanising' the process to provide the user with a much richer and fulfilling experience. Through the use of technology, the communication between remote workers and learners is greatly improved. This is done by capturing the non-verbal communication or body language of the user, which is not conveyed via distance learning or remote working, at present.

It has been widely shown that this type of communication is an essential component of social interaction and without it the person often experiences feelings of isolation or loneliness. Satisfying the need for social interaction stimulates more productive work and learning practices.

Some of the technologies, which will be used by Dr. Redfern and his team to capture non-verbal communication, include a gesture scripting system, which allows very high-level control, a facial expression selection tool and a facial pose and expression estimation system using digital image processing and pattern recognition. These technologies are designed to be used in a very a non-intrusive way, in an effort to optimise the communication process and make the experience as life-like as possible.

Dr Redfern's research is supported by Enterprise Ireland's Advanced Technologies Research programme.

Ends

For more information please contact: Máire Mhic Uidhir Press & Information Officer, NUI, Galway
Tel: 091-750418 / 087-2986592 E-mail: m.mhicuidhir@mis.nuigalway.ie

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